Thursday, March 21, 2013
I have no doubt that the story of this past week is one that I will tell often after my fellowship is over. It was thrilling to be in the middle of it and to be a significant contributor.
Passing a budget involves special rules in the Senate. First, once the budget bill is brought to the floor, there are a maximum of 50 hours of debate, and filibusters are not allowed. That means that a simple majority of 51 votes is needed to pass any given amendment. I may have mentioned that staff are not allowed to use blackberries or cell phones on the Senate Floor, but there was a special negotiation to allow people to use calculators. It felt a bit like negotiations for a chemistry quiz, and I really wanted to yell out, “No! Make them do long division!” even though the budget is really just addition and subtraction
I now have a better understanding of the difference between a Congressional budget and a Presidential Budget. The Senate’s budget is less than 100 pages long and provides funds in broad categories such as spending on energy or on the environment. It’s the President’s budget that breaks down the broad categories into specific line items such as funding for the Department of Energy and programs within that Department. So NASA, NSF, and Amtrak all have specific amounts in the President’s budget but not in the Congressional budget.
The budget process has given me an even greater appreciation for the Legislative Assistant (LA) who is my “boss.” Last week, he announced out of the blue, “It’s time to learn to write vote recommendations.” I was a bit intimidated by the process since I feel that I will probably never know everything I need to, but it was an excellent strategy to give me some practice in advance of the budget. I got more practice on vote recs the day before the budget started as my LA gave me a list of potential topics for amendments and highlighted ones that would be my responsibility. He suggested that I start writing some initial drafts, and that assignment improved my process and grew my confidence.
One of the particular challenges of the budget this time around is that we haven’t had one for the past four years. That means that since Senator Bennet was elected, there has not been a budget. Many offices are in the same boat, but thankfully, the newer staffs often include a few folks who have been through a budget in a previous office so there is some experience to go around. Once the 50 hours of debate are done, the process culminates in a vote-a-rama of rapid fire voting on amendments until everyone gets tired and agrees to stop and vote on the final budget. I know I’ve described a vote-a-rama before, but at that time, I didn’t understand the scope of a truly epic vote-a-rama, the speed of the voting, and the vast number of amendments involved.
The budget came to the floor on Wednesday night to start the 50 hours of debate, and about a dozen amendments were filed by the time I left in the early evening. I arrived on Thursday morning and started working through the 70 or 80 amendments in the system to identify which pertained to me or to my LA. One of the other LAs was coordinating the organization of the work for all the office, and he had created a shared spreadsheet that everyone could work on simultaneously. Once the interns arrived, they started transferring the information from the Senate’s online amendment tracker into the office spreadsheet, and they kept it up all day until they left, doing a magnificent job.
The list of amendments keeps growing. The amendment numbering system starts with #1 at the beginning of the Congress and then starts counting up from there for the next two years. Amendments also get tagged with the name of the Senator who submitted them, although there are often co-sponsors on each document. The first budget amendment was #136, and by mid-morning, we were over #236. I had chatted with a fellow Fellow the night before, and she said that a veteran of her office suggested there would be a minimum of 150 amendments. When we hit that number, I thought perhaps the pace would slow down.
But the amendments keep coming. 150 of them now, up to #286. I had plunged in and started to write vote recs, which initially were rather extensive, but with practice, I learned to focus on the key factors and be more concise. It was pointed out to me that with the anticipated pace and number of the votes, it was important to be clear and not confusing. Often I needed to research a topic to understand the pros and cons of the exact wording of the amendment, but it gave me great pleasure when I could write an amendment based solely on what I had already learned from my fellowship experiences.
And the amendments keep coming. We’re into the mid- 300 numbers having passed 200 amendments. A few years ago, I worked on a project for the American Chemical Society that involved an online chemistry calendar. I wrote over 100 essays of 250-400 words on chemistry topics ranging from ibuprofen to paint pigments to gymnasts’ chalk to hair dyes. That project taught me enormous discipline in my writing because I had to squeeze in time around the rest of my work to get the writing done. Writer’s block was a luxury I could not afford, and that experience turned out to be vital training for writing in Congress. I wish I could give this experience to my college students who so often get tied up because they don’t know how to do a job perfectly or because they get distracted. Personal crises were just not an option.
The relentless pace of amendments doesn’t slow, and we are now over 250 amendments. I have so many windows open on my computer that it is hard to keep track of them all. I need the Senate amendment tracker, the Bennet amendment tracker, a pdf of the budget bill, my email, and the current vote rec as a minimum, but I also need the phone numbers for the main desks of every Senate office to call for information, emails from committees, leadership, or advocacy groups with background information or talking points on certain amendments, and usually several browser windows for my research. If I lose focus or get distracted while popping between windows, it can take a little while before I remember what I was looking for.
I get my first amendment with a number in the 400’s, but some of the boxes for vote recs are getting filled in. The Bennet Fellows have paused to take a walk around the loop of our building to take a short break. One of my fellow Fellows in a different Senator’s office is holding down the energy and environment fort alone since her LA left a week earlier, and she emails me to ask the difference between two similar amendments. Dinner isn’t looking likely, so I join two other fellow Fellows for a snack of frozen yogurt. The other two are staffing a committee and thus are not immersed in amendments and vote recs. Crazy as the day is, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Back to the amendment tracker, and we are over 300 filed amendments. I’m starting to get into a flow, and I’m holding steady at half of my vote recs written. This morning when I only had two amendments on my list, that meant that one was written and I was working on a second. When I was up to ten amendments on my list, I had written five. By the end of the day, I was over 25 amendments on my list, but several filed as duplicates helped me get over the halfway point so I produced 16 vote recs and only had about 10 remaining on my list.
And the amendments keep coming. The valiant interns have gone home, but one of our magnficent front office staff has stayed to continue entering amendments into the office tracker. I’ve been holding my own with the pace all day, and now I start taking a second look at the list to figure out what I can possibly stretch to take on to free up other people. One of the recommendations I wrote in the morning had initially been assigned to someone else, and I was concerned that I might have stepped on his toes. Now I understand why he just laughed.
By the time I leave, there are 350 amendments in the system, and the Senate has voted on about six. I’ve worked steadily all day and made excellent progress, but the Legislative Director has encouraged all of us to go home to be fresh for the marathon tomorrow. What an amazing exhausting exhilarating brain-frying day!